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Racing ahead against time

A Kerala family gives a new lease of life to their 91-year-old snake boat JaiShot and its competitive tradition by renovating it.

Published: 22nd July 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 22nd July 2017 05:08 PM   |  A+A-

(From left) Sam C Maliyil, Abraham Oomman, and Minoo Verghese with their ancestral boat (EPS | Albin Mathew)

It was pitch black on the banks of the Muvattupuzha river at Chempu, 27 km from Kochi, at 4.30 am in June. A bare-bodied priest in a white dhoti from the nearby Nadakavu Temple sat cross-legged in front of a fire for the Ganapathy Homam Puja. As the chants began, offerings of coconut, honey, banana, ghee, and puffed rice were made.

The puja concluded before sunrise. Then, in the true traditions of a syncretic Kerala, a priest from the local St Thomas Jacobite Syrian Church arrived at 7.30 am to chant prayers.
All this was being done beside the just-renovated JaiShot snakeboat. At 10 am, the boat was finally pushed into the water by several people amidst the shouts of ‘Come on’ and ‘Jai Ho’. Minoo Verghese of the Maliyil-Pulikathra family, which owns the JaiShot, was the most pleased. For the past few years, the boat had been lying idle because for the races, boats now seat 60 people, while JaiShot had only 48 oars.
“There were several discussions among the family members,” says Minoo. “We decided that instead of selling it, we would increase the number of seats.” The ‘we’ includes Minoo’s wife Resina Sarah, aunt Molly John, and first cousins Sam C Maliyil and Abraham Oomman.

The boat was renovated at a cost of `20 lakh by a fourth-generation master boat builder Uma Maheshwaran, his brother, sons and nephews. It is now 85 feet long, four feet wide and a one-and-a-half feet deep. “The wood is top-quality wild jack that we got from a large tree in our property,” says Minoo, a businessman. The rims are made of teak, the rivets of copper, while the planks have been joined together using pine resin and silk cotton grounded together.
The work took eight-and-a-half months. “There were many difficult moments,” says Resina. “But we are happy that we did it. We have kept up our tradition alive.”

Their journey with this vessel began in 1926 when their grandfather M C George bought a boat from the skilled boat builders of Varapuzha and named it Pulikathra Vallom. Director of the State Agricultural Department, George was also a rice farmer. “The boat was used to transport men and materials,” says Sam. “And since it was fast, it could speed through dacoit-infested marshes and rivers.”

Later, it participated in snake boat races and reached its apogee of fame in 1952. At that time, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was the chief guest at the snake boat race event with his daughter Indira. When Indira saw the speed of Vallom that won the race, she said, “Look, look, it goes like a (bullet) shot!” This was announced on the public address system. “So, everybody came to know about it,” says the elderly Molly. The boat was then re-named Shot. In the 70s, Shot entered racing folklore after it won the trophy three years in a row. “That was a proud moment for all of us,” says Molly. Following a renovation in 2001, Shot was re-named JaiShot by the next generation.

Meanwhile, as the family members are conversing at their bungalow, a group of muscular men arrive. They are the members of the Kumarakom Town Boat Club, who had come to take the boat. The family has allowed them to use it for upcoming races. “We look forward to many victories,” says a smiling Minoo.
And the win came very soon. The JaiShot won its maiden race, the Champakulam Moolam Vallamkali, at Champakulam on July 8. “We are so happy,” says Minoo.

Back to back

During a war between the kingdoms of Kayamkulam and Chembakassery in the 13th century, the latter was defeated. A frustrated King Devanarayana asked a carpenter to make an efficient war boat that was called Chundam Vallam (Snakeboat). Later, races took place on these boats during the harvest festival of Onam.

Men on the boat

Traditionally, the boat is controlled by a Kaarnavan or a village leader. There are three main rowers (Amarakaran) at the back who control the movement using 9-foot long oars. The rowers sit two to a row, and follow the rhythm set to the vanchipattu (boatman’s song). The rhythm is set by the drummer who beats the odithatta (firing platform) with others.

Boat song

The song was composed by poet Ramapurathu Warrier (1703-53), who belonged to the court of King Marthanda Varma. During a boat journey from the Vaikom Mahadeva temple to Thiruvananthapuram, Warrier sang Kuchela Vrittam Vanchippattu. It tells the story of Lord Krishna meeting his poverty-stricken friend, Kuchela.



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